Copyright protects creative expression fixed in a tangible form. The copyright owner may be, for example, a writer, graphic artist, musician, designer or architect who “authored” the copyrightable work which could include text, photos, layout, drawings, artwork, buildings, and sometimes products.

Copyright is limited in that it can never protect an idea; it can only protect the particular manner of expression of an idea. This is the primary distinguishing factor from patent rights. So, if one designs a product with original visual features, copyright would protect those original visual features, but could not be used to prevent others from designing a similar product having different visual features. Copyright can protect the expression, but not the idea. In other words, another author can say or do the same thing, just in a different way.

Copyright can protect a product from being copied if the aesthetic features are "separable" from the utilitarian features of the product. This can be difficult to prove for most useful products. So, copyright is better suited to protecting art work or product designs that are more artist than utilitarian (such as jewelry, fabric designs, and toys.) But certain aspects of utilitarian items having a particular design aesthetic (such as a hammer with a uniquely painted handle) can obtain copyright protection for the handle design.

Obtaining Copyright

A copyright to your design automatically comes into being the moment the expression is created and fixed in a tangible form.

It is useful to register a claim of copyright with the U.S. Library of Congress because registration provides the author (or owner) with additional rights, such as the right to sue an infringer in court. It also creates important presumptions that are helpful in court. One may register a claim by filling out a form and sending it in with a specimen (or photographs) of the work and a filing fee.

The copyright belongs initially belongs to the author who created the work, unless the work is deemed a "work for hire" in which case the copyright belongs to the hiring party. A "work for hire" can be a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or a "specially commissioned" work if it falls into a class of nine categories and there is a written contract saying that it is a "work for hire". But, absent an agreement to the contrary, the author owns the copyright.

Length of Protection

A copyright registration normally lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. It is not renewable.

Advantages and Disadvantages to Copyright Protection

Copyright protection is quick, inexpensive and can last a long time. An author isn’t required to register the work, but there are many real advantages of registration and there are no immutable deadlines for registration. U.S. courts are accustomed to copyright principles and copyright litigation. And copyright can be very effective in preventing others from “passing off” the original author’s work as their own.

International copyrights are also available and doesn’t require a copyright notice. And copyright law now protects three-dimensional architectural works (i.e., the buildings themselves), instead of only the two-dimensional blueprints previously protected.

Though it is not required, it is very beneficial for an author to place proper copyright notice on a protected work. This means including the © with year and name of the owner of the copyright.

Copyright owners are entitled to statutory (i.e. fixed by statute) damage awards from an infringer or the infringers profits plus other damages sustained by the copyright owner. The copyright owner can also prevent further sales of the product by the infringer.

Copyright infringement can be difficult to prove in court in some instances because it it sometime difficult to obtain proof that the infringer actually copied the work. Usually, there is no proof of direct copying and the copyright owner must show that the infringer had access to the copyrighted work and that the alleged infringing work is substantially similar. There is no copyright infringement if the alleged infringer can prove independent creation of the allegedly infringing work.


An author obtains copyright protection automatically upon creation and fixing the work in a tangible medium. In other words, it’s free. But registration of a copyright requires preparation of an application and a fee. There are substantial benefits associated with registration and copyright owners are actually required to register a claim of copyright before filing a lawsuit for infringement.

Copyright registration fees are fairly minimal. Filing fees are listed by the Copyright Office on its web page. Preparation of an application by an attorney doesn’t take much time. But, should the Copyright Office refuse to register the copyright, there would be additional fees associated with having an attorney prepare a rebuttal and obtain the copyright (assuming there are reasonable grounds for doing so).

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